light from a stained glass window shining on a pew
light from a stained glass window shining on a pew
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Education vs. Intervention


Trigger warning: I’ll touch on religion in this Fix Homelessness column, so readers who are allergic to the subject might skip this piece and come back in January. That’s when I’ll begin a series on what I learned from staying in homeless shelters for ten days in October. On the other hand, it’s almost Christmas, so you might stick around and see if the rest of this column makes any sense to you.

In June 2022 I began this season of columnizing by suggesting that reactions to homelessness are often either Augustinian or Pelagian: Are we naturally sinful or wonderful? That debate 1600 years ago is still with us. If we are sinless, we need education in doing what’s right, and then we’ll do it. If we’re thoroughly messed up, though, we need God’s intervention. We cannot pull ourselves up by own bootstraps because we are bootless.

While sitting in a traditional “Lessons and Carols” service before Christmas, I thought more about the difference between emphasizing education and intervention. Most religions today focus on education: We learn particular attitudes (for example, “non-attachment” in Buddhism), develop particular practices (such as meditation), and thus move closer to the divine. Biblical Christianity, though, emphasizes intervention: We are helpless and hopeless apart from rescue by God.

The order of “Lessons and Carols” hymns dates from 1919. First comes “Once in Royal David’s City,” which says “He came down from heaven/ Who is God and Lord of All…. He leads his children on/ To the place where he has gone.” Next is “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” which describes how He is “born to set they people free/ from our fears and sins release us…. Born Thy people to deliver.”

There’s the crucial question in attempting to fix homelessness: Do we shelter a homeless person and (maybe) offer some education about a better way to live? Or, does that person need intervention so as to be delivered from fears, sins, and slavery to a substance? The third carol, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” asks Emmanuel (which means “God is with us”) to “ransom captive Israel…. Free thine own from Satan’s tyranny…. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night.” Nothing passive about ransoming, freeing, dispersing.

Fourth was “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People,” with a message of Jerusalem: “Tell her that her sins I cover/and her warfare now is over…. Make ye straight what long was crooked,/ make the rougher places plain.” Later, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” speaks directly to “ye beneath life’s crushing load,/ Whose forms are bending low,/ Who toil along the climbing way/ With painful steps and slow.” Education is insufficient: Only God can cover sins, remove crushing loads, and give us the power to quicken our steps.

The whole evening went that way. On a silent night, “shepherds quake at the site,” and angels heard on high send an invitation: “Come, adore on bended knee.” God proclaims joy to the world not because we have a new textbook, but because the Savior “comes to make His blessings flow/ Far as the curse is found.” We concluded with a modern plea to go tell it on the mountain that “Down in a lowly manger/ The humble Christ was born/ And God sent us salvation/ That blessed Christmas morn.”

I believe we need salvation, which comes only through God’s intervention. Others disagree with me theologically, but I’ve interviewed lots of homeless addicts or alcoholics. Most substance abusers know they are abusing themselves, but feel good when high and sad when sober. They need the joy to the world that God’s intervention brings to those He calls all over the globe.

A Christian responsibility is not to lay bets on which life will receive intervention. Two centuries ago charitable people tried to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy poor. They were not saying some people are less than human. They were saying that limited resources should go to those most likely to change, but I suspect they were over-optimistic regarding their predictive ability.

In the 1990s, when I interviewed numerous homeless people and a year later checked back about them, I was often surprised to learn who was making it and who was not. I learned not to predict. Other Christians have also wised up. It’s easy to cater to people at the top. The real test lies in helping people come up from the bottom. Merry Christmas.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.